by Thomas Litchford, Navy spouse
My 4-year-old son keeps asking me when Mommy is coming home. Her ship is in the final phase of preparing for their upcoming deployment. “Two more weeks,” I tell him. The trouble is, Sean’s comprehension of just how long a week lasts is murky at best.
We ran into friends from the neighborhood the other day at the park, and Sean said, “We haven’t seen you for a few days!” It had been two months or more since we’d last seen them, but “a few days” seems to be the longest timespan he can fit inside his still-developing brain.
How can I avoid answering the military family equivalent of “Are we there yet?” every day of my wife’s upcoming deployment?
7 Months Equals 4 Years
During other recent ship excursions, I’ve gotten away with telling him that Mommy would be gone for “lots of days.” That might be fine for one- or two-month separations, but something tells me that old brush-off isn’t going to fly when she’s gone for seven months.
I tried to prepare him, explaining the situation in terms he would understand. I used the school week as a reference point, but quickly found myself in the weeds: “You know how you go to school for a few days, and then you don’t go for a couple days? Well, all those days together make one week, and there are four weeks in one month, and…”
It was hopeless.
The major problem here is that seven months represents about one-seventh of his life. To put that in perspective, one-seventh of the life of a hypothetical 28-year-old reader of this magazine is four years. If our experience of time is relative to our age (remember when we were kids and it seemed like summer would never come?), then will those seven months pass for Sean as slowly as four years would pass for our Hypothetical Reader?
I know it’s not as simple as that. But scientists do agree that time seems to pass more slowly for kids. So this deployment will surely feel longer to Sean than it will to me or to my wife.
Where in the World Is Mommy?
How do you bridge this gap in understanding? The solution is to find a way to make the abstract concrete. One popular method is to fill a jar with a couple hundred Hershey’s Kisses-one for every day of the deployment. You give your child one Kiss every night (representing a kiss from the deployed parent), and she gets to watch the number of candies in the jar slowly shrink.
Sean is something of a sugar freak and he has sneaky fingers, so we’re going with an alternate approach: crossing off the days on a calendar. We’re putting all seven months up on his wall so he can draw an “X” over one square every night before bed.
We’re also going to put up a map of the world, using stickers to show him the ship’s location, where home is, and where Grandma and Grandpa live. Hopefully this will help to calm some of the anxiety he feels because of the separation.
It’s normal to worry about the effects of a deployment on our children. We’d like to remove as many upheavals as possible from their lives. But we can deal with these disruptions by including our kids in our conversations and activities. If we do that, maybe we can experience the next deployment not as a trial to be endured, but as an adventure to be lived.